What goes on inside the head of Pete Buttigieg? That’s the question behind Jesse Moss’ new documentary Mayor Pete, released last Friday on Amazon Prime Video.
Moss follows the even-keeled Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, along with his campaign staff and husband Chasten, as the young politician and Afghan War veteran makes history as the first openly-gay presidential candidate.
While Mayor Pete details the normal stressors of life on the campaign trail, it’s at its most poignant when examining Buttigieg’s relationship with his sexuality. It’s produced an intensely emotional inner-journey across his life—one which he quickly learned to bury. “The stronger an emotion, the more private it is,” is the ambitious politician’s main view.
To witness Mayor Pete’s campaign is to witness a wounded man, one who is still very much in the process of healing. “He did everything to climb the ladder without being his authentic self,” says Chasten. “I don’t think people understand how traumatic that is.”
In a speech at a dinner hosted by the pro-LGBTQ non-profit Victory Fund, Buttigieg describes the pain he felt after realizing he was gay. “It launched me into something I can only describe as a kind of war,” he says. “It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.”
The documentary portrays Chasten to be the real driver of his husband’s healing, helping him come to terms with his true self and become a more expressive individual. In one heartwarming scene, Chasten is shown leading a camp for LGBTQ youth. Throughout the documentary he is held as a fierce advocate for gay rights and Pete’s primary pillar of support.
Buttigieg’s inner calm and emotional unavailability is positioned as a detriment in both his marriage and his campaign. But it’s in part what made Buttigieg so appealing to voters in the 2020 Democratic primaries. “You’re like the Mr. Rodgers of the Democratic Party,” Mika Brzezinski tells Buttigieg during an interview on NBC’s Morning Joe.
While Buttigieg is praised for being collected, intellectual and non-emotive, the young mayor learns he’ll need to open up when tragedy strikes his city.
On June 16, 2019 a Black man in South Bend was shot and killed by a white police officer. The documetary reveals a behind the scenes look at Buttigieg’s decision to leave the campaign trail just days before the first Democratic debate in order to host a town hall meeting for South Bend residents. But Buttigieg is shown to be flustered and unsympathetic to the city’s Black population—and pundits took notice. It was the first major misstep in his campaign.
In order to respond to the tragedy in South Bend, Buttigieg has to find balance between the emotional appeal needed of political candidates and his own logical and introspective nature. It is through Chasten that the young mayor realizes that in order to be true to himself, he needs to accept his own feelings, ones that he has so long buried.
“Very early on in our relationship I would say, ‘What’s going on in that head of yours,’ and he’s grown a lot, being able to verbalize,” Chasten says. “I think he’s learned to let personal narrative have more of an impact”
Acute moments of Buttigieg’s emotional revelation are found throughout the documentary. At a campaign rally Buttegieg meets a woman who begs him to do something about the opioid epidemic that killed her brother.
At first Buttigieg answers with the stereotypical, ‘go to my website,’ but he pauses, realizing that this voter is in pain. He offers her assurance that his plan addresses “why people self-medicate in the first place,” bringing her to tears as they embrace one another.
Ultimately, Mayor Pete subverts the perception of politicians as stoic creatures meant only to make campaign calls and give pre-written stump speeches. It allows for a much needed reflection on who those in power really are and the development they’ve undergone to better themselves. But Buttigieg himself knows there are still more questions than answers.
After he drops out of the race and endorses Joe Biden, he sits down with Moss to reflect on the last year and a half. While the presidential campaign forced him to open up, he knows that being a politician requires one to, at best, regulate, and, at worst, bury their emotions.
“When you’re a candidate and you encounter multiple people a day that can tell you about losing a loved one because of a policy failure… if you actually imbibed all of the consequences of that, in all of its emotional meaning with all of the suffering that went with it, you would break. It’s only because of the way you can contain it, that you can be useful to people.”
Mayer Pete is now streaming on Prime Video.